What to look for when buying used

While you will likely save money when buying a used car, the shopping process can be more difficult than if you buy a new car. Beyond considering which vehicle you want, you also have to consider the condition of each car and put it through a thorough inspection.

Shop around

Once you’ve picked out the car that’s right for you, check around to see what it is selling for in your area. Kelley Blue Book values are the recognizable standard in the industry and are based on the prices cars are actually selling for, but you can find values through other guides like Consumer Reports, Edmunds and NADA guides.

You should also check classified ads, car websites, Craigslist and eBay to see what cars are listed for in the model you like. On eBay, you can also see what price a particular car eventually sold for. You can also go to nearby dealerships and see how their stock of used cars compares to your other sources.

Take note of all these prices and listing details because they can help you negotiate later.

Get the history

A vehicle’s history report is vital to understanding what the car has been through. While you can get free reports that comb through some government data, a Carfax or Experian Auto Check report will provide more detail, including how many owners the car had, any accidents it was involved in and if the odometer was tampered with.

Oftentimes, a vehicle’s VIN number appears on a car’s listing and you can check it before seeing it. If the information is not available in the listing, you can get the VIN from the owner or dealership when you see it.

Test everything

Step into the car. Make sure all the windows and locks work the way they’re supposed to. Make sure you can adjust all the mirrors. Check all the seatbelts. Thoroughly inspect every compartment and all the seats for any scratches, stains or tears.

Turn on the car. Listen to the engine for a while. Check the windshield wipers and the spray. Play with every button on the radio. Check the dashboard dimmer. Check the headlights, turn signals and brake lights. Inspect the tires for wear and tear.

Take the car for a spin. As you hit the road, listen carefully to how the car sounds, especially as it changes gears. With an automatic transmission, give the car some gas and listen for a loud clunk when the gears shift. That could be a sign of transmission problems, which can cost thousands in rebuilds and replacements. See how the car handles on the highway and in the city and how it parks.

Note everything that seems off or isn’t working right. You might want to walk away, or you might want to use some of the minor defects later to negotiate a better price.

If the car passes your initial inspection, see if you can get a trusted mechanic to check it out, especially if you are buying straight from the seller and not a dealership. If you don’t know one, ask friends and family or check reviews online to find a competent mechanic. The mechanic can tell you if there are any problems and estimate how much they will cost to repair. Never buy a used car without having a mechanic do an independent inspection. If the dealer or used car owner balks at having an independent inspection, you may want to walk away from the car.


When negotiating for a used car, you’re considering the specific condition of the car along with the price.

You have more negotiating room if you’re interested in a popular model, because there will likely be more units available. 

Use your comparison shopping and price references to negotiate a fair price. Use any defects to negotiate the price down. Be prepared to walk away at any time if you don’t think you’re getting a fair price. The seller may wind up chasing you down with a lower offer.

If you are buying from a dealer, you can have separate discussions about financing and warranties. A used car may come with a warranty, but many do not. If the warranty is not included, you can look at an extended warranty. Remember, however, that you can buy an extended warranty at any time and you don’t need to buy it from the dealer who sold you the car. Just make sure you’re clear on what is and is not covered.

If you are getting financing through the dealership, leave the financing out of the negotiation. Concentrate on the total sales price of the car before talking interest rates and monthly payments, and that will help you get a better deal on both.